With frost covering the ground, a full moon shining, and an imposing view of ancient cliff tombs perched mid-mountain, I bared my ass to the spirit of the Chachapoyan skeletons buried within. Mooning them, along with some cows and a lone llama was not my intention. Nor was it a drunken gag. Rather, after two days of hiking in this area of northern Peru, my body decided to expunge every last thing inside. So there I squatted, toque on my head, Peruvian woven gloves warming my hands, a pair of muddy gum boots on my feet and a naked, freezing butt glowing in the moonlight.
My tent mate had soon joined in my escapades. Throughout the night we alternated trips to the field. By my final trip out there, I was exhausted, dehydrated, weak and frozen. Perhaps that explains my impending paranoia. I became convinced that the cows and solitary llama wandering the fields around me were checking out my butt. “Pigs!” I retorted.
Only a day earlier me and six other trekkers had explored the area in full. We had admired the lush green surroundings turn into the more barren altiplano as we climbed higher and higher. We had approached some lower cliff tombs and walked amidst ancient bones and thousand year old basket weavings. I stared in wonder at skulls and a mummified bird, feathers still attached. It seemed as though I just needed to give it some magical breath and it would flutter away. Frozen in time. Amongst all that death, I had never felt more alive.
Back at camp the morning of the next day, I had never felt more lifeless. Over coca tea, a supposed cure-all in Andean culture, my tent mate Leigh-Anne and I decided to walk the six hours back to the nearest village rather than continue with our friends for the next three days. That six-hour hike would turn into a grueling ten-hour trek. With crackers, chocolate and water bottles in hand, we set off. Five minutes later, I was doubled over puking up a neon green liquid. Goodbye coca tea.
The next 2 hours brought a frustratingly slow pace with one of us having to stop and be sick. Dehydration soon became a serious concern, as even a sip of water would result in violent stomach cramps. Before long, I was suffering from dizzy spells and had to stop every few steps in order not to faint. All of this was going on while walking through a foot of mud. Things were not going well.
Eventually the halfway point came and we began to feel more confident. Walking became rhythmic and we were able to move at a steady space with no stops for more than 20 minutes at a time. A Peruvian family on horses soon passed by us and gave words of encouragement and support even while their hardened faces revealed amusement at these white, crazy girls. A cracker and some water went down smoothly. Optimism crept in.
That’s when we came across a dead horse. Or at least we thought it was dead. As we approached closer it became apparent that she was giving birth but it was a rough delivery. Blood was everywhere and she had a mourning look in her eyes. We let her be and walked on more solemnly. We attempted to invigorate ourselves again with talk of first concerts, favorite movies and chocolate but as we crossed over a bridge and looked into the river below, we watched in disbelief as a huge, dead, bloated dairy cow was stuck in a fierce whirlpool of raging waters. We walked on in silence.
About one hour later, as darkness fell, we stumbled into the village of Leymebamba. In complete contrast to our feelings and circumstances, the village was in mass celebration. As fireworks blasted, alcohol flowed, and song and dance reined, we collapsed in beds at the only hostel in town. The hostel owners initially encouraged us to come out with them, but after getting a closer look quickly realized we should head straight to bed, if not a hospital. A very hazy fog of worried faces, coca leaves, and frantic Spanish I was too tired to understand drifted in and out. I closed my eyes and dreamt of flying cows and horses.
Over the next couple of days when I was not sleeping, I was being given countless homemade remedies from the locals. Sitting in the Plaza de Armas, I practiced Spanish and chewed the coca leaves continuously offered to me. In the restaurant I ate comforting soups reminiscent of home and drank bottomless coca tea. Health returned to me through the offerings, concern, smiles and love of a village.
Initially my journey began as a trek in these unknown parts of Northern Peru to observe the lands and ancient Chachapoyan cultures that once lived on them. It ended up being a journey of discovering my own strength and will under great adversity. More importantly, it became a life lesson in the kindness and charity of the human spirit in the here and now.